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10 cultural differences that could really cause problems with European juvenile justice


The Commissioner for Human Rights of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, Dmitry Lubinets, told Ukrainian media that as of June 2023, 240 children had been taken away from Ukrainian refugees in Europe.

In particular, as Ukrainian embassies told BBC Ukraine, as of August, 75 Ukrainian children had been removed from their families in Poland, 7 in Italy, and 11 in France.

Horror stories about juvenile justice in Europe are not new; Russian propaganda has been actively promoting them for many years. In 2014, the story of Irina Bergset, who lived in Norway, spread widely across the Russian segment of the Internet, who claimed that her child was dressed in a Putin costume and stood in line to be raped. Despite the mother’s obvious insanity, the Russian media has repeatedly cited her story as an illustration of the absolute heartlessness of European child welfare services.

However, there are also real stories, when in Europe children were removed from their families because of the seemingly innocent actions of their parents. Moreover, in some situations the question arose concerning partial or complete removal of their parental rights.

So, there is still some truth in the horror stories of pro-Russian propaganda, and parents’ mistakes here can be very expensive? It depends on what is considered an error.

Due to the difference in cultural codes, parents from the countries of the former Soviet Union often do not understand why their everyday behaviour triggers and turns the huge state machine against them in order to protect children's rights.

In most cases, this is due to a fundamental difference in approaches: in Western European countries, the child is perceived as a separate person, and in the countries of the former Soviet Union - often as a dependent unit, completely dependent on the will of the parents.

Here are the most common mistakes that can cost an unprepared emigrant at least a conversation with a social worker.

1. Believe that the welfare services are aimed exclusively at removing children from their families

The removal of a child from the family is perceived in the post-Soviet space as an unconditional and irreversible evil. Because of this, emigrant women who find themselves in a difficult family situation are afraid of divorce - because then the merciless juvenile justice system will come to the house and will certainly deprive them of parental rights. The child will be taken away and no one will ever see him again.

Inadequate perception of the functions of the social system leads to inappropriate behaviour in conversations with employees of this system, which further aggravates the situation.

In reality, the main task of the welfare system is to reunite the child with his family. They try to give even the most unlucky parents - drug addicts, mentally unstable ones - a chance to raise their own child on their own.

“Removing a child from parental care is a serious decision with significant consequences for the lives and well-being of children. It must always be firmly and demonstrably based on the best interests of the child,” explains Aaron Greenberg, Regional Child Protection Adviser for UNICEF Europe and Central Asia.

Thrifty European states do not have the slightest desire to support someone's children at their own expense - this is a huge expense. Therefore, welfare services prefer lengthy conversations with parents and hope until the last moment that they will come to their senses and stop putting their own child in danger.

If you cooperate with government agencies and follow the recommendations of consultants, there is a huge chance that the child will be returned to the family as soon as possible or will not be removed at all.

For example, the website of the German welfare service emphasizes that “children are returned to their families if the parents are ready to accept help and thus ensure the well-being of the child. If the parents are not willing to cooperate with the service or, despite the assistance provided to them, there is a threat to the child’s long-term well-being, the court will decide who will care for the child and where the child will live.”

2. Truancy

Some parents believe that they can remove their child from lessons, leave them at home on school days, and generally sabotage the educational process in every possible way - this is their business and their area of ​​responsibility.

According to European laws, attending school is both a child’s right and obligation. Parents do not have the right to prohibit their child from going to school or encourage his or her truancy. After warnings come fines, the next step will be a talk with government welfare authorities.

The BBC reports on a situation where a recently emigrated mother in Switzerland received an official warning from local social services and an order to undergo a drug test because her child had been absent from school for 15 days without explanation.

“The child had chickenpox, it was impossible to make an appointment for her to see a doctor, the mother treated the child at home. All this time she received letters from the school and social services, which she translated incorrectly. And then they came to her house, shouted in French, she got scared and didn’t open the door, and then they called the police because she allegedly held the child by force” (quote from BBC - editor's note).

By the way, we note that in many European countries quarantine is not observed for chickenpox. It is believed that exposure to the condition is better.

3. “I don’t have to explain anything to anyone!”

To some extent this is true, but not when you have serious stress in your life and the child is nearby. For example, in Germany, a Ukrainian woman, Elena, had her daughter taken away because she was taking antidepressants. The mother’s excessive sleepiness and apathy alerted school staff and they contacted social services.

“We had been communicating for a year, they knew that we were a decent family, that we came because of Russian aggression. They say they thought I was taking drugs, but they could have just asked,” Elena says indignantly.

But European culture does not always allow you to ask such things directly - in many countries the concept of “privacy” is treated very carefully - so those around you prefer to share their doubts not with you, but with the authorities.

Therefore, if you are experiencing any important and visible changes in your life that may be perceived ambiguously, at least inform your teachers and neighbours.

4. Physical violence

Many parents see nothing wrong with spanking or slapping on the head of their child. This is the environment in which many of us were raised, and the phrase “my father could beat me with a belt and that’s nothing, I’ve grown up a totally normal person” has long become a meme (“who, who told you that you grew up to be normal one?”).

However, in Europe the laws regarding assault against children are much stricter than those to which we are accustomed. Here, a child's bad behaviour is not considered an excuse for physical abuse. And yes, a slap//kick is absolutely physical violence. Some parents still shake their fist at their children - and this will certainly be perceived as a serious threat.

Which countries in the world prohibit corporal punishment?

If a child regularly appears at school with bruises and scratches, very soon the question will arise about the adequacy of his parents and the advisability of his stay in such a family.

5. Emotional abuse

Psychological violence is also violence. In the post-Soviet space, it is customary to insult children - because of rage or in order to improve their behaviour. In principle, this is not even considered a punishment - which cannot be said out of anger.

In Western Europe, they treat their emotional state more carefully; if they have problems managing aggression, they are accustomed to turning to specialists, rather than experimenting on children and others.

A public scandal with a child (even if it was the child who was in the wrong) can easily lead you to a spacious office where you will be offered various options for creating a safe environment for the child while you solve problems with your own psyche.

For example, in Germany, legislation literally prohibits any “corporal punishment, infliction of psychological harm and other treatment of children that is degrading to human dignity.”

6. Criminal neglect

Teaching a child to be independent is wonderful and right, but there are safety precautions that must be followed.

For example, in most European countries, a child cannot be left alone at home until the age of 12 (although in Poland it is possible from the age of 7, so check the laws of your country). At the same time, he can walk alone down the street - within the bounds of common sense, of course.

And here we are again faced with the difference in cultural codes. Because in our country it’s “It's my own responsibility if I leave him, this is my business and if something happens, it will be my fault,” and in Western Europe it’s “The safety of the child is not my personal business, I can’t allow my actions caused something to happen.”

When can you leave your child alone at home in the Netherlands?

Until the age of 7, a child must always remain under parental supervision.

8-10 years old: it is not recommended to leave the child at home alone, but if it is required to foster independence, you can leave them for 30 minutes.

11-12 years old: can be left at home alone, but for no more than 2 hours.

13-15 years old: children can stay home alone, but not at night.

16-17 years old: now your child can be at home alone, even at night.

7. Underestimation of strong social control

In some post-Soviet countries, for example in Ukraine, semi- European legislation regarding the protection of children is already in force. However, the laws prescribed there are not always used in practice due to the lack of European traditions.

For example, bruises and scratches on a child’s body are given much less importance here, while, for example, in the Netherlands, France, Switzerland or Germany, reporting such injuries “where appropriate” is considered a civic duty, and in the case of doctors or teachers - simply official responsibility. Likewise, neighbours are likely to call child welfare authorities if they discover that your young children are being left unattended at night or are walking outside alone for too long in the evening.

Faced with such “public concern,” emigrants often find themselves not ready to answer “to the fullest extent of the law,” do not understand the logic of the system and take the position of a victim of circumstances or react aggressively, which further alarms the welfare authorities.

8. Use of mind-altering substances

Of course, this is a personal choice for any adult, but if you have a child with you, you should always be able to ensure their safety. This means that you cannot use drugs or alcohol regularly and in large quantities, even if you do not personally threaten the health and life of the child, but quietly fall asleep and pass out.

If parents suffer from alcoholism, this can become a significant reason for removing a child from the family, and it does not matter whether he is subjected to physical violence or not.

For example, the Ukrainian embassy in Poland reported that the most common reason children in this country were removed was because the guardian was intoxicated.

9. Domestic showdowns

In the former CIS countries, few people pay attention to the climate in the family. Classic jokes about mother-in-laws that annoy a married couple; about a wife and husband who hate each other - these are not always merely jokes. Often family members harass each other by nagging or through domestic dramas and cannot find a common language. If children are not directly affected, no one considers it a problem.

“We had some domestic dramas with my mother, but I fulfilled my parental responsibilities properly. I’m not an alcoholic, my home is always in order, there is food” - for residents of the former CIS this is an absolutely normal and understandable situation; such relationships with relatives are not at all uncommon and are taken for granted. However, for a European resident, such incidents in the family are a reason to immediately seek help from the authorities.

And of course, in European countries there is the concept of a favorable family environment for children.

If you don't yell at your child or hit him, but get into loud arguments in front of him, your neighbours may call the police.

And then you will have to cooperate with the welfare services in establishing a favorable climate in the family - perhaps at the cost of divorce.

10. It's okay to ask for help

Due to cultural characteristics, post-Soviet emigrants are not accustomed to asking for help from the state and are afraid of the intervention of government services, which, in their opinion, can only make things worse. As a result, communication with the authorities occurs only when things are going so badly that there is no longer any alternative.

Europeans, on the contrary, are confident that government agencies can and should help them in difficult life situations and are accustomed to seeking help immediately.

“If there is no hint that the child is in danger, there is no suspicion of violence, they (social services) ask how we can help your family,” says Ukrainian Yulia. “They expect adults here to behave like adults who are not afraid to speak openly about their problems and needs. If parents don't recognize that they have problems and don't ask for help when it is needed, then they are not adults and cannot be trusted with a child.”

Errors are common in any system, so you should not expect any 100% guarantees of the correct operation of European social services. Probably, in some situations you may still need the help of human rights activists and lawyers. And yet, a significant number of misunderstandings can be eliminated if you do not dramatize the situation and carefully study local traditions and legislation.

By Irina Iakovleva

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